Pacific Clipper - The long way home
The saga of the China Clipper. A bit lengthy but a great read.
The Long Way Home
Here's another great book on the saga, it's available online from
Amazon.com and others. (By Ed Dover, Paladwr Press-third printing
2003). There's much more to the story than the brief account below.
This is an odyssey that one might print and read as a "bedtime story."
It reads like a novel. It is about a Pan American clipper (passenger
sea plane) that was enroute from the USA to Australia when they
received a teletype message about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The
story relates their circuitous route back to the US. It is a throw
back to the trials of early aviation.
Round The World Saga" of the "Pacific Clipper"
By John A. Marshall
December 7, 1941.
The first blush of dawn tinged the eastern sky and sent its rosy
fingers creeping onto the flight deck of the huge triple-tailed flying
boat as she cruised high above the South Pacific. Six days out of her
home port of San Francisco, the Boeing 314 was part of Pan American
Airways' growing new service that linked the far corners of the
Pacific Ocean. With veteran captain Robert Ford in command, the
Pacific Clipper, carrying 12 passengers and a crew of ten was just a
few hours from landing in the harbor at Auckland, New Zealand.
The calm serenity of the flight deck early on this spring morning
was suddenly shattered by the crackling of the radio. Radio Operator
John Poindexter clamped the headset to his ears as he deciphered the
coded message. His eyes widened as he quickly wrote the characters on
the pad in front of him. Pearl Harbor had been attacked by Japanese
war planes and had suffered heavy losses; the United States was at
war. The stunned crew looked at each other as the implications of the
message began to dawn.
They realized that their route back to California was irrevocably
cut,and there was no going back. Ford ordered radio silence, and then
posted lookouts in the navigator's blister; two hours later, the
Pacific Clipper touched down smoothly on the waters of Auckland
harbor. Their odyssey was just beginning. The crew haunted the
overwhelmed communications room at the US Embassy in Auckland every
day for a week waiting for a message from Pan Am headquarters in New
York. Finally they received word -- they were to try and make it back
to the United States the long way: around the world westbound. For
Ford and his crew, it was a daunting assignment. Facing a journey of
over 30,000 miles, over oceans and lands that none of them had ever
seen, they would have to do all their own planning and servicing,
scrounging whatever supplies and equipment they needed.
All this in the face of an erupting World War in which political
alliances and loyalties in many parts of the world were uncertain at
best. Their first assignment was to return to Noumea, back the way
they had come over a week earlier. They were to pick up the Pan
American station personnel there, and then deliver them to safety in
Australia. Late on the evening of December 16th, the blacked out
flying boat lifted off from Auckland harbor and headed northwest
through the night toward Noumea. They maintained radio silence,
landing in the harbor just as the sun was coming up. Ford went ashore
and sought out the Pan Am Station Manager. "Round up all your
people," he said, "I want them all at the dock in an hour. They can
have one small bag apiece."
The crew set to work fuelling the airplane, and exactly two hours
later, fully fuelled and carrying a barrel of engine oil, the Clipper
took off and pointed her nose south for Australia.
It was late in the afternoon when the dark green smudge of the
Queensland coast appeared in the windscreen, and Ford began a gentle
descent for landing in the harbor at Gladstone. After offloading
their bewildered passengers, the crew set about seeing to their
primary responsibility, the Pacific Clipper. Captain Ford recounted.
"I was wondering how we were going to pay for everything we were going
to need on this trip. We had money enough for a trip to Auckland and
back to San Francisco, but this was a different story. In Gladstone a
young man who was a banker came up to me and out of the blue said,
"How are you fixed for money?" "Well, we're broke!" I said. He said,
"I'll probably be shot for this," but he went down to his bank on a
Saturday morning, opened the vault and handed me five hundred American
Since Rod Brown, our navigator, was the only one with a lock box
and a key we put him in charge of the money. That $500 financed the
rest of the trip all the way to New York.
Ford planned to take off and head straight northwest, across the
Queensland desert for Darwin, and then fly across the Timor Sea to the
Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), hoping that Java and Sumatra
remained in friendly hands. The next day, as they droned into the
tropical morning the coastal jungle gradually gave way to great arid
stretches of grassland and sand dunes. Spinnifex and gum trees
covered the landscape to the horizon. During the entire flight to
Darwin the crew didn't see a river big enough to set down the big
flying boat should anything go wrong. Any emergency would force them
to belly land the airplane onto the desert, and their flight would be
They approached the harbor at Darwin late in the afternoon,
massive thunderheads stretched across the horizon, and continuous
flashes of lightning lit up the cockpit. The northernmost city in
Australia,Darwin was closest to the conflict that was spreading
southward like a brushfire. A rough frontier town in the most remote
and primitive of the Australian territories, it was like something out
of a wild west movie. After they had landed, the Pacific Clipper crew
was offered a place to shower and change. Much to their amusement
their 'locker room' turned out to be an Australian Army brothel.
Ford and his crew set about fueling the airplane. It was a
lengthy, tiresome job. The fuel was stored in five gallon jelly cans.
Each one had to be hauled up over the wing and emptied into the tanks.
It was past midnight before they were finished. They managed a few
hours of restful sleep before takeoff, but Ford was anxious to be
News of the progress of the Japanese forces was sketchy at best.
They were fairly certain that most of the Dutch East Indies was still
in friendly hands, but they could not dally.
Early the next morning they took off for Surabaya, fourteen
hundred miles to the west across the Timor Sea. The sun rose as they
droned on across the flat turquoise sea. Soon they raised the eastern
islands of the great archipelago of east Java. Rude thatch-roofed
huts dotted the beaches. The islands were carpeted with the lush green
jungle of the tropics.
Surabaya lay at the closed end of a large bay in the Bali Sea.
The second largest city on the island of Java, it was guarded by a
British garrison and a squadron of Bristol Beaufort fighters. As the
Pacific Clipper approached the city, a single fighter rose to meet
them. Moments later it was joined by several more. The recognition
signals that Ford had received in Australia proved to be inaccurate,
and the big Boeing was a sight unfamiliar to the British pilots. The
crew tensed as the fighters drew closer. Because of a quirk in the
radio systems, they could hear the British pilots, but the pilots
could not hear the Clipper. There was much discussion among them as
to whether the flying boat should be shot down or allowed to land. At
last the crew heard the British controller grant permission for them
to land, and then add, "If they do a anything suspicious, shoot them
out of the sky!" With great relief, Ford began a very careful
As they neared the harbor, Ford could see that it was filled with
warships, so he set the Clipper down in the smooth water just outside
the harbor entrance. "We turned around to head back," Ford said.
"There was a launch that had come out to meet us, but instead of
giving us a tow or a line, they stayed off about a mile and kept
waving us on. Finally when we got further into the harbor they came
closer. It turned out that we had landed right in the middle of a
minefield, and they weren't about to come near us until they saw that
we were through it!"
When they disembarked the crew of the Pacific Clipper received an
unpleasant surprise. They were told that they would be unable to
refuel with 100 octane aviation gas. What little there was severely
rationed, and was reserved for the military. There was automobile gas
in abundance however, and Ford was welcome to whatever he needed. He
had no choice. The next leg of their journey would be many hours over
the Indian Ocean, and there was no hope of refueling elsewhere. The
flight engineers, Swede Roth and Jocko Parish, formulated a plan that
they hoped would work. They transferred all their remaining aviation
fuel to the two fuselage tanks, and filled the remaining tanks to the
limit with the lower octane automobile gas.
"We took off from Surabaya on the 100 octane, climbed a couple of
thousand feet, and pulled back the power to cool off the engines,"
said Ford. "Then we switched to the automobile gas and held our
breaths. The engines almost jumped out of their mounts, but they ran.
We figured it was either that or leave the airplane to the Japs."
They flew northwesterly across the Sunda Straits, paralleling the
coast of Sumatra. Chasing the setting sun, they started across the
vast expanse of ocean. They had no aviation charts or maps for this
part of the world. The only navigational information available to the
crew was the latitude and longitude of their destination at
Trincomalee, on the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Using this
data, and drawing from memory, Rod Brown was creating his own Mercator
maps of South Asia. Ford was not only worried about finding the
harbor. He was very concerned about missing Ceylon altogether. He
envisioned the Clipper droning on over India, lost and low on fuel,
unable to find a body of water on which to land. As they neared the
island they could see a cloud bank ahead. Ford said, "There was some
low scud", so we descended. We wanted the maximum available
visibility to permit picking up landfall at the earliest moment. We
didn't want to miss the island. All of a sudden there it was, right
in front of us. A Jap submarine! We could see the crew running for
the deck gun. Let me tell you we were pretty busy getting back into
the scud again!
Ford jammed the throttles of the Clipper forward to climb power,
the engines complaining bitterly. Their 150 mph speed soon had them
well out of range of the sub's guns, and the crew heaved a sigh of
relief. It would be difficult to determine who was the more
surprised; the Japanese submarine commander or the crew of the
Clipper, startled out of their reverie after the long flight.
It was another hour until they reached the island, and the Boeing
finally touched water in the harbor at Trincomalee. The British
Forces stationed there were anxious to hear what Ford and his crew had
to report from the war zone to the east, and the crew was duly
summoned to a military meeting. Presiding was a pompous Royal Navy
Commodore who informed Ford in no uncertain terms that he doubted Ford
would know a submarine if it ran over him. Ford felt the hackles rise
on the back of his neck. He realized that he could not afford to make
an enemy of the British military. The fate of the Pacific Clipper
rested too heavily in their hands. He swallowed hard and said
It was Christmas Eve when they began the takeoff from Ceylon and
turned the ship again to the northwest. The heavily loaded Boeing
struggled for altitude, laboring through the leaden humid air.
Suddenly there was a frightening bang as the number three engine let
go. It shuddered in its mount, and as they peered through the
windscreen the crew could see gushes of black oil pouring back over
the wing. Ford quickly shut the engine down, and wheeled the Clipper
over into a 180 degree turn, heading back to Trincomalee. Less than
an hour after takeoff the Pacific Clipper was back on the waters of
Trincomalee Harbor. The repairs to the engine took the rest of
Christmas Eve and all of Christmas Day. One of the engine's eighteen
cylinders had failed, wrenching itself loose from its mount. While
the repair was not particularly complex, it was tedious and
time-consuming. Finally early in the morning of December 26th, they
took off from Ceylon for the second time. All day they droned across
the lush carpet of the Indian sub continent, and then cut across the
northeastern corner of the Arabian Sea to their landing in Karachi,
touching down in mid-afternoon.
The following day, bathed and refreshed, they took off and flew
westward across the Gulf of Oman toward Arabia. After just a bit over
eight routine hours of flying, they landed in Bahrain, where there was
a British garrison.
Another frustration presented itself the following morning as
they were planning the next leg of their journey. They had planned to
fly straight west across the Arabian peninsula and the Red Sea into
Africa, a flight that would not have been much longer than the leg
they had just completed from Karachi.
"When we were preparing to leave Bahrain we were warned by the
British authorities not to fly across the Arabian peninsula," said
Ford. "The Saudis had apparently already caught some British fliers
who had been forced down there. The natives had dug a hole, buried
them in it up to their necks, and just left them."
They took off into the grey morning and climbed through a solid
overcast. They broke out of the clouds into the dazzling sunshine,
and the carpet of clouds below stretched westward to the horizon. "We
flew north for about twenty minutes," Ford said, "then we turned west
and headed straight across Saudia Arabia. We flew for several hours
before there was a break in the clouds below us, and damned if we
weren't smack over the Mosque at Mecca! I could see the people
pouring out of it, it was just like kicking an anthill. They were
probably firing at us, but at least they didn't have any
The Pacific Clipper crossed the Red Sea and the coast of Africa in
the early afternoon with the Saharan sun streaming in the cockpit
windows. The land below was a dingy yellowish brown, with nothing but
rolling sand dunes and stark rocky out-croppings. The only sign of
human habitation was an occasional hut. Every so often they flew over
small clusters of men tending livestock who stopped and shielded their
eyes from the sun, staring up at the strange bird that made such a
noise. The crew's prayers for the continued good health of the four
Wright Cyclones became more and more fervent. Should they have to make
an emergency landing here they would be in dire straits indeed.
Late in the afternoon they raised the Nile River, and Ford turned
the ship to follow it to the confluence of the White and Blue Niles,
just below Khartoum. They landed in the river, and after they were
moored the crew went ashore to be greeted by the now familiar
hospitality of the Royal Air Force. Ford's plan was to continue
southwest to Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo and begin their South
Atlantic crossing there. He had no desire to set out across the
Sahara. A forced landing in that vast trackless wasteland would not
only render the aircraft forever immobile, but the crew would surely
perish in the harshness of the desert.
Early the next morning they took off from the Nile for
Leopoldville. This was to be a particularly long overland flight, and
they wanted to leave plenty of daylight for the arrival. They would
land on the Congo River at Leopoldville, and from there would strike
out across the South Atlantic for South America.
The endless brown of the Sudan gave way to rolling green hills,
and then rocky crests that stretched across their path. They flew over
native villages, and great gatherings of wildlife. Herds of
wildebeest, hundreds of thousands strong, stampeded in panic as the
Clipper roared overhead. The grassland soon turned to jungle, and
they crossed several small rivers, which they tried to match to their
maps. Suddenly ahead they saw a large river, much bigger and wider
than others they had crossed, and off to their right was a good-sized
town. The river had to be the mighty Congo, and the town was Bumba,
the largest settlement on the river at that point. From their maps
they saw that they could turn and follow the river downstream to
Leopoldville. They had five hundred miles to fly.
Late in the afternoon they raised the Congolese capital of
Leopoldville. Ford set the Boeing down gently onto the river, and
immediately realized the strength of the current. He powered the ship
into the mooring, and the crew finally stepped ashore. It was like
stepping into a sauna. The heat was the most oppressive they had yet
encountered and it descended on them like a cloak, sapping what energy
they had left.
A pleasant surprise awaited them, however, when two familiar faces
greeted them at the dock. A Pan American Airport Manager and a Radio
Officer had been dispatched to meet them, and Ford was handed a cold
beer. "That was one of the high points of the whole trip," he said.
After a night ashore they went to the airplane the next morning
prepared for the long over-water leg that would take them back to the
western hemisphere. The terrible heat and humidity had not abated a
bit when the hatches were finally secured and they swung the Clipper
into the river channel for the takeoff.
The airplane was loaded to the gunnels with fuel, plus the drum of oil
that had come aboard at Noumea. It was, to put it mildly, just a bit
overloaded. They headed downstream into the wind, going with the
six-knot current. Just beyond the limits of the town the river
changed from a placid downstream current into a cataract of rushing
rapids; pillars of rocks broke the water into a tumbling maelstrom.
Ford held the engines at takeoff power, and the crew held their breath
while the airplane gathered speed on the glassy river. The heat and
humidity, and their tremendous gross weight were all factors working
against them as they struggled to get the machine off the water before
the cataracts. Ford rocked the hull with the elevators, trying to get
the Boeing up on the step. Just before they would enter the rapids
and face certain destruction, the hull lifted free. The Pacific
Clipper was flying, but just barely. Their troubles were far from
over, however. Just beyond the cataracts they entered the steep
gorges, it was as though they were flying into a canyon. With her
wings bowed, the Clipper staggered, clawing for every inch of
altitude. The engines had been at take-off power for nearly five
minutes and the their temperatures were rapidly climbing above the red
line. How much more abuse could they take? With agonizing slowness
the big Boeing began to climb, foot by perilous foot. At last they
were clear of the walls of the gorge, and Ford felt he could pull the
throttles back to climb power. He turned the airplane toward the west
and the Atlantic. The crew, silent, listened intently to the beat of
the engines. They roared on without a miss, and as the airplane
finally settled down at their cruising altitude Ford decided they
could safely head for Brazil, over three thousand miles to the west.
The crew felt revived with new energy, and in spite of their
fatigue, they were excitedly optimistic. Against all odds they had
crossed southern Asia and breasted the African continent. Their
airplane was performing better than they had any right to
expect, and after their next long ocean leg they would be back in the
hemisphere from which they had begun their journey nearly a month
before. The interior of the airplane that had been home to them for
so many days was beginning to wear rather thin. They were sick of the
endless hours spent droning westward, tired of the apprehension of the
unknown and frustrated by the lack of any real meaningful news about
what was happening in a world besieged by war. They just wanted to get
After being airborne over twenty hours, they landed in the harbor
at Natal just before noon. While they were waiting for the necessary
immigration formalities to be completed, the Brazilian authorities
insisted that the crew disembark while the interior of the airplane
was sprayed for yellow fever. Two men in rubber suits and masks
boarded and fumigated the airplane.
Late that same afternoon they took off for Trinidad, following the
Brazilian coast as it curved around to the northwest It wasn't until
after they had departed that the crew made an unpleasant discovery.
Most of their personal papers and money were missing, along with a
military chart that had been entrusted to Navigator Rod Brown by the
US military attach in Leopoldville, obviously stolen by the Brazilian
The sun set as they crossed the mouth of the Amazon, nearly a
hundred miles wide where it joins the sea. Across the Guineas in the
dark they droned, and finally, at 3 am the following morning, they
landed at Trinidad. There was a Pan Am station at Port of Spain, and
they happily delivered themselves and their weary charge into friendly
The final leg to New York was almost anti-climactic. Just before six
on the bitter morning of January 6th, the control officer in the
Marine Terminal at LaGuardia was startled to hear his radio crackle
into life with the message, "Pacific Clipper, inbound from Auckland,
New Zealand, Captain Ford reporting. Overhead in five minutes."
In a final bit of irony, after over thirty thousand miles and two
hundred hours of flying on their epic journey, the Pacific Clipper had
to circle for nearly an hour, because no landings were permitted in
the harbor until official sunrise. They finally touched down just
before seven, the spray from their landing freezing as it hit the
hull. No matter -- the Pacific Clipper had made it home.
The significance of the flight is best illustrated by the records
that were set by Ford and his crew.
1) The first round-the-world flight by a commercial airliner.
2) The longest continuous flight by a commercial plane.
3) The first circumnavigation flight following a route near the
Equator (they crossed the Equator four times.)
4) The first flight to touch all but two of the world's seven
continents. They flew 31,500 miles in 209 hours and made 18 stops
under the flags of 12 different nations.
5) The longest non-stop flight in Pan American's history ... a 3,583
mile crossing of the South Atlantic from Africa to Brazil.
As the war progressed, it became clear that neither the Army nor
the Navy was equipped or experienced enough to undertake the
tremendous amount of long distance air transport work required. Pan
American Airways was one of the few airlines in the country with the
personnel and expertise to supplement the military air forces.
Captain Bob Ford and most of his crew spent the war flying contract
missions for the US Armed Forces. After the war Ford continued flying
for Pan American, which was actively expanding its routes across the
Pacific and around the world. He left the airline in 1952 to pursue
other aviation interests.
The Crew of Pacific Clipper:
Captain Robert Ford
First Officer John H. Mack
Second Officer/Navigator Roderick N Brown
Third Officer James G. Henriksen
Fourth Officer John D. Steers
First Engineer Homans K. "Swede" Roth
Second Engineer John B. "Jocko" rish
First Radio Officer John Poindexter*
Second Radio Officer Oscar Hendrickson
Purser Barney Sawicki
Asst Purser Verne C. Edwards
* Poindexter was originally scheduled to accompany the Pacific Clipper
as far as Los Angeles, and then return to San Francisco. He had even
asked his wife to hold dinner that evening. In Los Angeles, however,
the regularly scheduled Radio Officer suddenly became ill, and
Poindexter had to make the trip himself. His one shirt was washed in
every port that the Pacific Clipper visited.
This article originally appeared in the August 1999 Issue of "Air and
Space Magazine" and is reprinted by permission of the author.